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Walking on Hot Coals : Lawsuits Pile Up for Motivational Guru Robbins

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anthony J. Robbins, millionaire and founder of fire walking, strolls along marble floors in his Spanish-style castle in Del Mar.

He speaks with ease about how different his life once was, when a succession of stepfathers passed through his lower-middle-class household. At the age of 17, he lived in the back of his car after his mother kicked him out of the house. Later, he lived in a 400-square-foot apartment, washing his dishes in the bathtub and gaining 38 pounds.

Robbins made his mark and fortune by creating the mid-1980s fad of “fire walking"--in which he convinced thousands to pay hefty sums to take a barefoot stroll on hot coals and prove to themselves that their feet would not be burned “as long as you just believe!”

He has all but abandoned the fire walks for more ambitious projects.

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The 31-year-old commands $60,000 an appearance as a motivational speaker, $180 for a line of audiotapes and $595 for video seminars. He produces and stars in his own TV “infomercials,” in which he can be seen in earnest discussion with football great Fran Tarkenton.

What he does on all of these is more of his animated talking, telling people they can achieve whatever they want.

To Scott Salter, who grew up with Robbins and was two years behind him in high school, the former upperclassman is a true inspiration.

“A lot of us look at this guy who had the same socioeconomic background and status that we did--poor--and look at what he’s done,” said Salter, who sells sprinkler systems. “If he can make it, we can too.”

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Tony Robbins is a man who made himself in his own image of human potential.

Yet there are subjects Robbins just won’t discuss. Like his father, who deserted his family and now parks cars in a Santa Monica garage, or his sister, who manages a Carl’s Jr. restaurant, or his brother, who installs cable TV equipment.

“They don’t wish to be interviewed,” he said. “I don’t want that.”

Nor does he mention the seven lawsuits filed against him this year in the San Diego courts claiming he broke promises to several business associates.

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Robbins, a native of Glendora in the San Gabriel Valley, began his career in self-help salesmanship early. Shortly after graduating from Glendora High School, he went to work for a seminar leader named Jim Rohn. After that, he conducted seminars for Harvey and Marilyn Diamond, who wrote the controversial diet book, “Fit for Life.”

Eight years ago, after moving from Los Angeles to Del Mar, Robbins seized on the fire walk, selling people on the idea that only their self-imposed limitations--in this case, the fear of literally being burned--were keeping them from reaching their dreams.

The fire walk became a national self-improvement fad, with tens of thousands of people paying more than $700 a pop to hear a motivational speech and then take their walk across a bed of hot coals.

“I hustled and hustled and hustled,” Robbins said, watching his income rise from $40,000 in 1983 to more than $1 million each year since 1985.

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Today, Robbins owns nine corporations, including a resort in Fiji. His flagship company is the La Jolla-based Robbins Research International, home to more than 100 full-time employees, the vehicle for the sale of seminars, speaking appearances, distributorships, audio and videocassettes--all commanding huge sums of money.

In all of these, Robbins urges the paying customer to set goals, eat only healthy foods and, in the right combination, speak to themselves and others with “positive” language and imitate only successful people.

He approaches a crowd in the manner of an old-time preacher, as a dervish of animated movement, gesticulating wildly, exhorting a crowd to yell out questions, clap loudly, shout freely and sing songs if the spirit so moves.

His recipe of “constant, never-ending improvement,” which he labels CAN-I!, has drawn its share of visible figures, such as actors LeVar Burton and Martin Sheen (co-host of the next infomercial), former Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.), and author Charles J. Givens (“Wealth Without Risk”).

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Robbins’ literature describes him as a “peak-performance consultant to Fortune 500 companies,” who understands “the fundamentals of success conditioning.” Clients have included AT&T; and American Express, he says. Company spokesmen could not be reached for confirmation.

His current infomercial, a slick, half-hour spot that suggests “you can master your emotions, your finances and your life!” by buying his $179.95 line of audiotapes, is seen in 200 markets, by an estimated 100 million viewers.

“That’s 35% of the American population,” said Robbins, who admires television mogul Ted Turner and “would like to be like him,” but hasn’t ruled out a career in politics.

Colleagues say the glib confidence Robbins shows in front of a crowd make him a natural as a candidate.

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“Tony’s awesome,” said Paul W. Wells of Encinitas, who worked as one of Robbins’ national sales trainers. “He’s dynamic, energetic, highly competent, professional, driven, personable, sincere, hard working to a fault and a great guy who likes to have fun. In every way possible, Tony Robbins walks his talk.”

A different view is held by Larry Sergeant, who in a $100,000 lawsuit accuses Robbins of masterminding a “pyramid” scheme that “delivers no goods or services,” making its money by drawing in new investors rather than by selling the seminar.

“Tony Robbins,” Sergeant said from his home in Dallas, “has made an art form out of stretching the truth, amplifying things, painting incredibly vivid pictures in three dimensions with you in them--with a smile on your face, your favorite music playing, seeing your favorite colors, feeling your favorite feelings.

“But, sooner he later, he (cheats) everybody he does business with. And the thing that scares me is, he may get away with it.”

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For a minimum investment of $16,000, franchisees buy the right to sell seminars based on the Robbins’ philosophy, using a videotape of Robbins available nowhere else.

Sergeant said he made an initial investment of $20,000 for the right to market Robbins’ audio and video materials in several ZIP codes of Dallas. He said the contract provided “exclusive control” within that area.

Soon, he said, “It was obvious the regional distributor--my support person--was competing against me, with the blessing of the home office. After all, they’d already gotten my money.”

Several of those suing said that, after investing $20,000, $60,000, $250,000 or more, they were denied the promised exclusive domain in regional territories, failed to receive adequate backing and advertising, and, with little to sell besides audio and video pep talks, had no way of clearing the debt--much less making a profit.

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Texas attorney Charles Chandler Davis, who represents Sergeant as well as clients in Houston and West Norwalk, Conn., in suits against Robbins, said one borrowed “tens of thousands of dollars from his mother” and “lost it all.”

Davis said the Robbins seminar is “no more than a videotaped sales pitch” and that Robbins is the only one getting rich from the franchise plan.

He said Robbins “starts out by saying, ‘You’re not a success because you don’t want to be one. It’s all between your ears.’ Then, after your confidence is torn down, you’re built back up again. You’re told you’re the strongest, the most powerful, your life is emanating positive vibrations, women will love you, and the money will just come.”

Another Robbins franchisee is asking for $5 million in damages. John Schweiter of the San Francisco Bay Area claims that he paid $16,000 for the rights to sell Robbins’ material and in exchange was given promises that never were kept.

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Among the unmet promises, Schweiter alleges, were that $12 million in advertising would be spent to promote the business and that he could expect to earn a six-figure income and recoup his income within 60 days.

Schweiter further alleges that when Robbins granted him “the exclusive right” to present his seminars in San Jose, Robbins knew that he had “previously granted this same right to another individual.”

Brad M. Hunsaker, legal counsel for Robbins Research International, declined to comment on any of the suits.

“But exclusivity is really not the issue in these sorts of actions,” Hunsaker said. “Just generally speaking, I would say they arise because of the expectations of the distributors themselves. And, in a lawsuit, they can allege anything they want.”

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Alan Hahn, the chief executive officer of Robbins Research International, chalked up the suits to growing pains.

“The distributor operation was a new business and suffered the problems of any new business,” he said. “The disgruntlement that was evident was primarily among people who are no longer in the program, for any number of reasons.

“The failure rate of new businesses in this country is high. People try things, and it doesn’t work. That’s what some of this is all about. And, when someone fails at a business--and it’s particularly true with franchisees--it doesn’t make any difference whether you’re a human development training company or a fast-food chain, the first person they blame is the franchise owner.”

To hear Robbins tell it, he’s as concerned as anyone about the charlatans of get-rich-quick extravaganzas.

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“I didn’t want to be in a no-money-down real estate genre,” he said in an interview at the castle. “To me, that was real scummy, and I’m not trying to be negative toward that industry. I just didn’t . . . want to be attached to that.”

As a result, he said, when he went into the infomercial field, he insisted that he be given control over his shows.

Infomercial is the moniker given 30- to 60-minute spots that resemble a talk show or documentary but are in fact paid advertising. Infomercials sell everything from cosmetics marketed by actress Ali McGraw to remedies for baldness to Robbins telling viewers they can lose weight, improve their relationships and “master” their destiny by heeding his philosophy of never-ending improvement.

Infomercials have come under increasing scrutiny from federal regulators, who fear that what is basically a sales pitch is being given a veneer of objective news value. Robbins said he supports efforts by “infomerchants” to work with Congress and the Federal Trade Commission in regulating the industry.

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The staple of the infomercial is Robbins himself, who says he was barely 5 feet tall in high school but now, at 6-foot-7, is what friends call a towering mix of two seemingly disparate sides:

Intimidation and vulnerability.

Colleagues say it’s no coincidence that his second book, due out in November, is called “Awaken the Giant Within: How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Destiny.”

Robbins’ is an amalgam of New Age philosophy and the American notion that, if you believe and are truly persistent, you too can live in a castle and make the world your oyster.

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He lists the New Age practice of neuro-linguistic programming as one influence and Edward Demming, whose ideas helped transform the Japanese auto industry, as one of his mentors.

Neuro-linguistic programming, a hybrid of linguistics and hypnosis, studies how people influence each other in subconscious ways. Richard Bandler and John Grinder, co-founders of the idea and colleagues of Robbins who receive high praise in his first book, “Unlimited Power,” claimed that therapists could use their techniques--scanning a patient’s eye movements, speech pattern, body language, changes in skin tone or breathing--for a quick fix on the patient’s problem. Hypnotic techniques could then be used to reprogram behavior.

Bandler claimed his methods could cure phobias in 10 minutes.

“Therapists say it takes years to cure something,” said Jon Humphrey, a promoter of rock concerts, who took part in a recent Robbins’ seminar. “But Tony says you can cure it in 10 minutes. I like the immediacy . . . not having to drag things out.”

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Bandler received national attention three years ago when he went on trial for murder in Santa Cruz, for allegedly killing a prostitute. He was later acquitted, but his problems with cocaine as well as his ties with a former drug dealer were well documented.

Now, Robbins says he’s backing away from neuro-linguistic programming because “the word programming implies something I don’t believe and don’t really use any more.”

He says he’s more concerned with “beliefs and values” and the role they play in everyday reality.

“Look at my company,” he said. “We reach everybody from the guy in the South Bronx who’s addicted to crack to Peter Guber, the (chief executive officer) of Columbia Pictures. We’re the leaders in human development training--in the nation.”

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Robbins said his flagship alone grosses more than $50 million a year, but declined to disclose his or his company’s net worth.

“It’s kind of personal,” he said.

It was also too personal for Robbins to provide addresses or phone numbers, even names, of family members, saying he didn’t want them interviewed. Asked why his father, brother and sister work at what seem to be menial jobs, Robbins said, “That’s what they want to do. They’re happy with it.”

He said he recently purchased an oceanfront home for his mother and sister in Huntington Beach, but his brother has spurned any help.

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“He wants to make it on his own,” Robbins said. “I respect that.”

He said his mother kicking him out of the house as an “out-of-control teen-ager was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Yet he will not say what was so terrible about him as a teen-ager, other than that it wasn’t drugs or alcohol.

He also sees silver linings in what he says was his father’s desertion and a succession of stepfathers--one of whom adopted Robbins and gave him his name-- who came and went. The situation left him “the man of the house,” he said, and, whether he wanted them or not, leadership and responsibility were thrust upon him.

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By the dawn of his senior year at Glendora High in 1977-78, Robbins had taken on the role of student body president.

Deonna Williams, 31, a classmate of Robbins, said her lasting impression is of a “survivor with an incredible gift of gab. How that boy could talk! Despite his background, you knew he would make it.”

John David Eckert, two years behind Robbins at Glendora High, remembers him as “a very vociferous, eloquent speaker even back then. He exerted and exuded authority and commanded your attention. Typically, at pep rallies, he was the one leading the cheers. But he was small, very small, so it’s surprising to see how big he is on television.

“I think Tony’s position on life is a good one, that you can go out and make life happen,” said Eckert, an air quality inspector. “I wish I . . . had done that more.”

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And Robbins clearly likes the life he has made happen. He loves expensive clothes and cars, a line of which are parked at the entrance to the castle. In one suit on file in Superior Court in San Diego, Robbins is suing a man for selling him a $27,000 used Porsche that he claims is defective. An arbitrator will decide that one.

Robbins likes his ocean view from a turret of the 1927 castle, with its 3 acres, its imported wooden doors and the white marble that paves the living room. He also likes his sculptures and paintings and photographs of him with “friends,” such as pop star Michael Jackson, Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Tom Lasorda and Los Angeles Lakers guard Byron Scott.

He has a battery of assistants--secretaries, chefs, gardeners, nannies--a 7-year-old son and three stepchildren from his wife’s previous marriage.

Becky Robbins, 41, who was married to Robbins in a lavish ceremony at the castle in 1985, said her husband is “fun” as a father and spouse and a “great problem-solver and confidante.”

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His wife and children have traveled the globe with a man increasingly familiar to total strangers in airport lobbies.

As a result, the Robbins children have come to feel “that there are just no limits,” their mother said. “So Tony and I . . . turn them loose on the world.”

Robbins says that, through his wealth, he can do that, and, although he tires of people “coming right out and just asking for money” in “very personal letters,” he’s begun a philanthropic foundation that he hopes “turns some lives around. We’ve got the power to do that.”

His goal, he said, “is to reach as many people as possible, in the shortest period of time. I believe I can make a difference. I know I can, and the sky’s the limit. I’m not a guru. I want to be a coach--or a friend. I can change people’s lives--forever. I know it. I already have.”

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